Hints and tricks for horse who likes to shut down

Caol Ila

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One of Foinavon's little quirks is that he mentally switches off when you ask him to cope with a new/scary thing. He retreats into himself, and while he might be standing still and tolerating it, you can see the tension in his body language and a look in his eye that says, "I'm not here. This is not happening." He doesn't do anything terrible, but when he's that disengaged, he's not learning anything or building confidence.

I'm just doing little bits of desensitization at a time, with advance and retreat and using positive reinforcement as much as I can. I got him less scared of a hose today -- better than when we started. He wouldn't let me splash his foot, but he was willing to drink from it. I'm open to any further suggestions from the hivemind. My yard friends suggested a 'power through it' approach, which I'm not going to do because I think that's how he got to this point in the first place. He'd been at a pro yard for training, and his previous owner reported that he 'threw a tantrum in the arena' and the pro fought through it. Now the horse is an anxious mess when ridden in arenas, so I can't say that was effective. I am currently doing groundwork in the arena, which isn't a problem at all. I don't want to climb the ridden arena work mountain until he's gained more confidence, which really means developing more trust and teaching him new and better coping strategies for dealing with weird/scary sh*t.

I should add that he's willing and very capable on hacks so long as another horse or OH on foot is leading. He sometimes feels braves and leads, but not so reliably that you'd take him out alone.

The three-year old PRE has become far more straightforward. Her: "That's a scary thing." Me: "No, it's not." Her: "Oh. Cool."

My previous horses could be spooky and certainly had glitches, and I did lots of groundwork with them, but mentally, they were always present. They might be thinking, "I am getting out of dodge," but one way or another, they were engaging with what was happening rather than shutting their eyes and pretending it wasn't.

Just keep on plodding with what I'm doing? Any good videos addressing this sort of behaviour? Bummed, because I used to feel more confident with training, but I keep second guessing myself. And I suppose I like talking things out with people, because I'm the process queen and it helps me, and I don't feel I can with many real life horse people. Felt a bit unheard (hah, like my horse) when my friend's view was, "make yourself into the scarier thing."
 
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PurBee

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My mare has the same response with most new things (sometimes she accepts new things very willingly - i really havent figured out the difference from her perception why 1 thing is scary and another isn’t as it’s not in the least overtly rational) .
She gives a sideways glance, wide nostrils, stands tense and frozen, tolerates the new thing but not willingly. She’s not headcollared, at liberty, yet doesnt flee despite having ample room. With her, it resolves via repetition. I dont force the new thing on/to her, i just keep presenting the new thing slowly, regularly. Over time, she’s less tense until its accepted, she’s at ease.

With rugging, as her reponse with tarps is dragon snorts - i decided to present myself to her wearing the rug on myself! Just 2 minutes, wondering around her with draped around me, she sniffed it. Next day the same, but i got closer to her and rubbed it on her, walked off. Itsy bitsy steps to acceptance.
The brave, walk-towards-fire-to-suss-it-out gelding, saw the rug on me , tried to bite and pull it off me, rubbed it on him, and then i flung it on his back and he wasnt flustered at all, investigating it healthily. He’s the mare’s son, and has somewhat been behaviourally conditioned by the mare, yet his bravery and open curiosity is the opposite of her.

Groundwork with the mare, same technique, i move my body how i want her to move. It seems to be her language to observe and imitate. I often do groundwork with the gelding with her watching, then move onto her and she does it all first time having observed the gelding session.

Figuring out how an individual horse learns is what ive learnt most about horses. I used to think training was a cookie-cut approach applicable to all horses, before owning a horse. They all have their own niche way of learning.

The only time i ‘powered through it’ with my mare was with hosing her feet off after mud exposure. She was fine with it but after a break from hosing due to no mud, she developed the weird hesitancy to have her backs hosed down, fronts still fine. The water was cold and a small jet...i have crappy low water pressure. It was winter and colder than usual as i think she felt it cold more acutely on her backs, but i knew she wasnt scared of it as i had done it so many times before.
We would dance in circles until she realised i wasnt going to not hose her feet…then would stand calm and be fine. She likes to say ‘no, not today’ to some things she’s used to and normally at ease with. I then have a discussion with her, literally….explaining what im going to do and why followed by “pretty please?” (Its ridiculous!) 😆….then she huffs and lets me do the thing. (Is this the reason why some people loathe mares i wonder!)
So i agree with you, powering through with absolutely new things isnt an approach i agree with, yet has a place with familiar things, while still questioning and enquiring/noting why there’s a rejection of a ‘familiar’ thing. I’m referring mainly to non-riding aspects of training/exposures. Powering through on their back if there’s not normally a problem normally leads to us splat on our backs if we’re not careful!

You’re learning Foinavon’s language and as you got him licking the water from the scary snake, it sounds like you’re his best suited translator and keep going with your approach 🙂
 

DabDab

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What you're doing sounds alright to me tbh - it will just take time.

Pebbles, my young Connemara, used to do that a lot. She would freeze and zone out, and very occasionally the thing troubling her would go over the threshold for pretending it wasn't happening and she would suddenly try to leave the situation at speed.

I can't remember the last time she did it tbh (would be well over a year ago), but I should think she would still do it if faced with something that really bothered her.

It sounds saft but I used to cuddle her when she did it and sometimes feed her a couple of treats. The neck hug became a physically supportive cue that it's all ok and gradually became a reliable trigger to snap her out of freeze mode.
 
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Sounds like you’re doing it fine. Some horses just do that.

Faran refuses to look at scary things, he actively turns his head away, I haven’t taught him this as my approach is to take him to the scary thing with treats and give him take a treat after touching it with his nose then have a good exploration and this works for us but his natural reaction is ‘if I can’t see it I’m fine’.

some horses take longer with certain things and some just need positive reinforcement and repetition. Keep going
 

Regandal

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There’s a good video on YouTube of the TRT method of training a horse to reduce anxiety itself. So you don’t have to desensitise them to each individual scary thing, the default response gets hardwired in.
 

milliepops

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I've ridden a few like this and I agree that just quietly chipping away at it is the right approach, he will probably always tend to be a bit like that but you can teach them techniques to stay in the moment.


Faran refuses to look at scary things, he actively turns his head away, I haven’t taught him this as my approach is to take him to the scary thing with treats and give him take a treat after touching it with his nose then have a good exploration and this works for us but his natural reaction is ‘if I can’t see it I’m fine’.
i have done this with my welsh too, she will identify a thing she is frightened of and then look elsewhere, if you didn't know the way she operated then you wouldn't necessarily know what it was that had worried her in the first place. I have taught her to approach and noseboop the scary thing and provided I don't hassle her about how quickly she does that, she will reliably touch anything and then it's dealt with. the way i do it is the speed is her department, the direction is mine.

It sounds saft but I used to cuddle her when she did it and sometimes feed her a couple of treats. The neck hug became a physically supportive cue that it's all ok and gradually became a reliable trigger to snap her out of freeze mode.
this has worked well for me too, touch and comfort seems to really help my current zone-outer

I rode an arab that zoned out over mounting and would then come to and freak out, with him i used scratches and treats as well as turning his head to make sure he stayed engaged with me when i was at the block, putting foot in stirrup etc, it was hard for him to stay present but he did improve fairly reliably with that kind of approach.
 

Caol Ila

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I've been in contact with his first trainer, who gentled and backed him. She says he was brave and curious. Of the three ferals his previous owner acquired, he was the only one who was brave and curious and not dangerous. The other two wanted nothing to do with humans (and were both at the yard when I looked at him, still unbroke). Unfortunately, she couldn't continue working with him due to an accident on another horse. He sat in the field, then like a year or so later, he was sent to the pro yard. It sounds as if this zoning out is a learned behaviour. I guess it always is. First trainer is back at work, so I'll have a wee session with her and see if revisiting the techniques she used initially helps him unlearn the defensive stuff.

That all said, we had an excellent hack today. He had OH as 'lead horse' but didn't put a foot wrong and was chilled out and happy, despite a couple less-than-well controlled dogs and children on a ropes course.
 

daydreamer

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Warwick Schiller turned around his whole horse training philosophy and life because of a shut down horse. I am sure there would be some useful things on his website. His podcast is fascinating too and shut down horses come up now and again. One of the thing he says is to pay very close attention to them and let them know you are doing so, so if they give you the tiniest sign of worry stop and back off then keep trying.
 

Caol Ila

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Warwick Schiller turned around his whole horse training philosophy and life because of a shut down horse. I am sure there would be some useful things on his website. His podcast is fascinating too and shut down horses come up now and again. One of the thing he says is to pay very close attention to them and let them know you are doing so, so if they give you the tiniest sign of worry stop and back off then keep trying.
That’s really interesting. I remember his early stuff, which was very much of the ‘be the scarier thing’ philosophy, but then he changed his approach to something a lot more non confrontational and softer.
 

tiga71

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I agree with Daydreamer. Warwick Schiller might be worth a look.

I took on a project horse and all the work I have done with him has been based on always listening to him, letting him know I hear him and keeping him below threshold. I have learnt to be very aware of his signals and when he tells me he is a little worried, I listen and we go back to where he was comfortable, then go very slowly again. A LOT of going back to his comfort zone and very slowly stretching it. I really have to listen to him and let him know I have heard his worries and that we are ok going back for a bit.

It has really helped with him.
 
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